Two years ago while passing through Chueca in Madrid, my partner and I stopped by the little gallery Mad is Mad, on Calle Pelayo, where there has always been something to admire in the shop window. Mad is Mad sponsors quirky, out-of-the way art by emerging artists. It was June 2018. I was surprised and delighted to see that there was a show featuring embroidery and crochet work. This is serendipity, I thought. For about a year I had been working on a long essay that I was not altogether certain I could write, on the relationship between text and textile and feminism. But suddenly it seemed as if the topic had been around and in the background for years even if I had not seen it as such. Women artists were making art about it. Groups had formed on the web. And in the second edition of her classic study The Subversive Stitch. Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine (London and New York: IBTauris, 2010), Rozsika Parker offered an update on recent artistic practice — in the UK and US — since the first edition of her book in 1984.
The show “Daños” [Damages], which was on from 17 May to 20 June, was by an artist from Madrid, Berta López. The gallery owner was happy to allow me to take photographs. At the time I thought only of keeping them as a reminder. I am embarrassed to say that I was still using an antique Sony Cybershot, with a relatively low pixel count. But I snapped away and filed a few pictures on my computer, together with one or two from her website.
I am not an art critic by training (I am a literary scholar), but my engagement with this phenomenon is part of my ever-increasing entanglement with metaphors involving thread and words. I became convinced that it was a subject in itself. If you doubt this, I would ask you simply to think of all the expressions that we use unconsciously every day which invoke a textile: a threadbare argument, weaving a plot, spinning a tale, making something up out of whole cloth, building a network of users… The list is long and covers many languages. Almost from the inception of writing (and perhaps earlier, who can say?) we have used such metaphors and now they have frayed–like a well-worn collar–so much so that we do not ask about them.
And that being the case, we have hardly thought about whether the ancient practices in and of themselves can be seen as art.
In Petrarch’s time all thread arts, beginning with weaving but also including embroidery, were referred to as lavori d’Aracne–the work of Arachne–, for myth held that all these arts were originally practiced by the young heroine who dared to compete with Athena and was turned into a spider for her insolence. The myth of Arachne´s contest with the goddess is one of the most famous of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (it is, for example, the subject of Velázquez’s painting Las hilanderas), but as we read it today it seems simply to be one of those stories that explain where things come from: in Ovid’s terms it accounts for the hairy little black animal that can be seen dangling from its cobweb. However, the spider’s work has not always been seen in such pejorative terms. At one point, for example, as historian Fanny Bury Palliser reminds us, a very fine kind of darned netting made in the Middle Ages was known as an opus araneum and has been studied as a precursor to lace.
In the gallery López’s work was untitled, or else relied upon an embroidered legend as a title. But, exceptionally, one group of works played metaphorically with the idea of a silent spider’s web. In a work seen below, hanging on the wall (first from the left), she has produced a piece of crochetwork, which at once recalls a web and, at the same time, a dartboard. In a similar piece (of which I reproduce only a detail ) I detected little fly-like red pins stuck to the “web” as a representation of the spider’s prey. But in fact it is sometimes hard to tell what the hierarchies of meaning are for the metaphors that the artist puts into play.
The crochetwork itself– doilies meant, perhaps, as centerpieces for a dining room table (like one done by my grandmother in the 60s, shown here) looks very much like an ordinary spider’s web, because there is no floral or fruit pattern imposed on it. But in the piece with little red flies the artist went farther and chose to create the effect of an ever loosening thread, with the result that all attention is focused on the more densely crocheted center, as if that were the hub of a wheel or the bullseye for a dart.
All throughout the exhibition López showed embroidery and stitches in red. This is not decorative. It is as if she were using the color to represent all its symbolic potential: as blood, a sign of life and death, passion or personal sacrifice. (As a literary critic, I am put in mind of how Federico García Lorca drew a “monja gitana” (Cat. 240.3), with a red thread of blood dangling from her hand as she embroidered the “flores de su fantasía”). In fact one early feminist saw a suppressed yearning in all the centuries of women’s embroidery. The male poet, painter or thinker –she reasoned– had other means at their disposal to express deep feeling, but a woman, traditionally, channeled her creativity into a decorative art. Olive Schreiner, the celebrated author of Women and Labour (1911) agreed; she saw that the slightest bit of needlework betrayed the passion of a woman’s soul finding voiceless expression. Has the pen or pencil dipped so deep in the blood of the human race as the needle? (Cited in Parker, The Subversive Stitch, p. 15)
In a poem titled “The Lacemaker of Segovia”, which the Hispanist and collector Arthur Huntington published in 1928, the author imagined that the Spanish artisan had poured her heart into her work, as if writing a mute text:
Into the text of woven thread,
Did she fashion the pain of love that was dead? (p. 1)
Not all the work displayed in López’s show was stitched or worked by hand. Sometimes it appears that the artist “embroidered” with a machine and thereby produced the sharp zigzagging lines of a monitor that records heartbeat or blood pressure.
My grandmother died many years ago, shortly after I finished my undergraduate degree at Stony Brook. But she left me pieces of her crochet work like the one above which I sometimes pull out of storage and admire. I suspect I am fairly typical of my generation (of second-wave feminists) in underestimating what went into that work. When I saw her bent over her lace, I took little interest in what she was making; I saw it as a hobby, a pleasant way to fill empty hours. It never occurred to me–as it should have–that as an artisan she had planned her designs and colors, and that she may have had an unusually good eye for this. However, as much as I have learned to appreciate her handiwork, I know that these lavori were part and parcel of a very different world view. My grandmother was brought up in a tiny farming village near Rome, Italy; she embroidered and stitched linen towels and sheets for her trousseau and then she took them all in a trunk to the New World, where she raised her children through the Great Depression, and, so far as I could tell, held a great many sorrows inside. If she ever dreamt of rebellion or regretted her new life, she kept it to herself.
She would have been perplexed to see some of López’s needle work. As a devout Catholic, she might have thought it was disrespectful, not the product of any girl who had been raised right. Needless to say, she would not have dreamt of using her skills to write an angry message in thread. ( When “text messages” have been stitched onto cloth, as in the early American sampler tradition, they have generally been offered as proof of a girl’s mastery of the ABCs or as a record of marriage and births).
López’s work is irreverent and aggressive. It forms part of a modern movement of “subversive” stitchery that relies on, even as it defies, the connotations and domestic context of women’s traditional thread art. Its message goes quite literally against the use throughout history of women’s needle work as part of their training in marriage, family and obedience. The cross-stitch, for example, which she has used for the exhortation Que te jodan [F*** You, see below] would shock anyone who has seen a traditional sampler because it contradicts the sweet and homely sentiment that one has come to expect inscribed in such pieces.
In the middle ages, nuns and ladies of the court put their eyes out to complete a design or to embroider for hall or Church; they learned the qualities of restraint and self-denial that went along with their tasks, and their work came to stand for their submission. Anger and imprecation, even complaint, were unheard of. And so their accomplishments became the sign of the qualities of womanhood that were approved of until the 20th Century. Devotion to God’s work went without saying. Much of the very early embroidery done in Europe was used to cover altars or embellish priestly vestments, with appropriate subjects derived from the lives of saints or the Bible. López suggests a profane way to read behind such work. The woman who embroidered Sangrandocorazón in red suggests that what she has in mind is her own bleeding heart, not the representation we see in religious imagery of Jesus’s Sacred Heart: only an n separates “Sagrado” [Sacred] from the words Sangrando [Bleeding]. On a rocking chair a sign in jagged red script, “Ya no vengas”, warns an imagined (male) viewer not to come near, as if to say that the woman who waited in the chair is no longer waiting. Literally, she is not there for him. There is, on balance, something profoundly disquieting about the entire scene : it was as if a woman’s body were absent but at the same time haunting the room through the signs of blood left behind.
As I walked through the gallery, I formed an image of the woman embroiderer with her grievances. In my mind’s eye I saw the artist as a resourceful woman who had learned to stand up to machismo and patriarchal claims on women’s bodies. But I also saw a persona, a female embroiderer who was ill-used and who was now seeing red. When López showed her work at Mad is Mad, Spain was at the height of a campaign to see the perpetrators of a gang rape–“La manada”– brought to justice. Nowhere was it more unexpected to find protest than in a craft whose connotation was docility, modesty, and obedience. The embroiderer’s protest was simple enough: “Here, for the centerpiece of your table, take this: NO.”
Words: Roberta Quance
About: Roberta Quance is an American scholar currently residing in Madrid. She lectured at Queen’s University Belfast from 1998 to 2015.She is known especially for her work on Federico García Lorca (In the Light of contradiction, 2010) and on women and myth (Mujer o árbol, 2000). A brief essay on Lorca and embroidery appeared in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition Jardín deshecho. Lorca y el amor, ed. Christopher Maurer (Granada, 2019). Since 2017 she has been working on a long project titled Obra de araña [Spiderwork], which examines the relation between feminism, text and textile.
García Lorca, Federico. Libro de dibujos. Ed. Mario Hernández. Granada: Comares, 1990.
Huntington, Arthur M. The Lacemaker of Segovia. New York: n.p., 1928
Palliser, Fanny Bury. A History of Lace. 3rd ed. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Low and Searle, 1875.
Parker, Rozsika. The Subversive Stitch. Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine. Rev. ed. London and New York: IB Tauris, 1996.
“Introducción al ‘craftivism’: cuando un bordado se convierte en un arma política”, Vogue [España], 7 de noviembre de 2017
Iqbal, Nosheen, “A Stitch in Time: How Craftivists Found Their Radical Voice”
Jarque, Fietta, “Puntadas de doble filo,” 2 de diciembre de 2015
McCracken, Krista, “Embroidery as Record and Resistance”
Navarro P., Cata “Bordar: más que un arte, una forma colectiva de expresión política,” Zancada [Chile], 16 de junio de 2017
Stergar, Catherine. “Alphabets, Flowers, and Verse: American Samplers and Needlework by Girls,” March 12, 2019 blog at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Wilson, Sophie. “The Emerging Artists Making Embroidery Political”, I-D 6 February 2020